Wednesday 12 October 2011

Quality and quantity in poetry; Tomas Tranströmer

Among all the stuff (and nonsense, some of it) written about Tomas Tranströmer’s Nobel Prize win was a reference to his fairly modest output.  New Collected Poems translated by Robin Fulton (1997) contains around 150 pages of poetry.  But that’s over a lifetime.  The index shows that the poems appeared in a dozen or so collections, each containing 10-20 mostly short poems.  And we’re told that these were all the poems Tranströmer had published in book form by then, when he was nearly 70. 

That’s pamphlet size, according to British norms anyway…  One small collection every few years for TT’s Swedish-speaking followers.  Never any risk of a disloyal moment of dismay at a new 70-page book.  I’m not getting at anyone here - just to stay with Nobel Prize winners, Walcott, Heaney and Szymborska have all been more prolific, and are all wonderful.  But scarcity gives an edge of hunger… Marie Howe, Jo Shapcott and John Glenday are all examples. 

A separate but related point is that I find poetry most rewarding when I’m reading it in small amounts. What’s the ideal length of a poetry book?  Assuming that it contains short poems, I’d say 15-25 pages.  Or maybe 30.  So, a pamphlet rather than what’s known as a full collection.  The reader needs enough to be able to make connections - of tone, style and content.  It’s also good to be able to get a little bit lost, not to know how much one hasn’t yet read, though I suppose that depends on how one reads (I hardly ever start at the front and work through).  But then once the whole pamphlet’s been read one can spend time on each page, reading poems in different combinations.  And a small book doesn’t weigh heavily on pocket or handbag, either physically or financially.

Sometimes, even shorter collections can work, for example Elizabeth Burns’ pamphlet the shortest days which won the Michael Marks pamphlet prize a couple of years ago: 11 poems, in two short sequences of elegies.  The unity of theme makes this work; the plainness and purity of the poems makes them stand out. 

Back to Tranströmer.  There has been some small-island and trans-Atlantic harrumphing about his Nobel victory, along the lines of “I’ve no idea who he is / have never bothered to read him, so why did he win it?”, and “He’s a Swede, so it’s all a set-up”.  These commentators must spend little time thinking or talking about contemporary poetry, let alone reading it, otherwise they’d have a sense of how much he’s revered.  English speakers are well-catered for.  There’s the Bloodaxe New Collected (see above) and Robin Robertson’s translations of around 15 poems (with parallel Swedish text - well done Enitharmon!) in The Deleted World.  There are also two American Selecteds, one edited by Robert Hass and the other, The Half-Finished Heaven, translated by Robert Bly.   

Bly talks here about translating TT.  “He's so unbelievably fast! He's like some runner, you know, he enters the forest and suddenly he's way gone, he's ahead of you, I don't know where he is.” 

I’ve just been looking at the translations by the two Robins (don’t have the Roberts).  What a luxury to have two translations to compare, plus the Swedish which can be half-followed, in step with the translation, at least if one has German.  Plus the memory of Tranströmer’s appearance, with piano, at the South Bank a couple of years ago.  He has been described as a buzzard poet, because he sees tiny details from a great height.  This may make him easier to translate.  I suspect that Fulton has reproduced the original as exactly as he could, and Robertson has gone for his own best poem.  In some places I prefer one, in others the other. 

Here is the first verse plus a later pair of lines from ‘A Winter Night’: Tranströmer, then Fulton (the earlier translator), then Robertson. 

Stormen sätter sin mun till huset
    och blåser för att få ton.
Jag sover oroligt, vänder mig, läser
    blundande stormens text. 
Och huset känner sin stjärnbild av spikar
    som håller väggarna samman.

The storm puts its mouth to the house
    and blows to produce a note.
I sleep uneasily, turn, with shut eyes
    read the storm’s text.
And the house feels its own constellation of nails
    holding the walls together. 

The storm puts its mouth to the house
and blows to get a tone.
I toss and turn, my closed eyes
reading the storm’s text.
The house feels its own constellation of nails
holding the walls together. 

What wonderful images.  Has Robertson, a non-Swedish speaker, reproduced Fulton’s lines where he thinks they are the best solution, or did he arrive at the same wording by chance, the original being precise enough to allow for little else?  I’ve just found that the TLS has reproduced a debate on its letters page from 2007, after publication of The Deleted World.  Fulton was not happy either with the similarities, or with Robertson’s lack of Swedish and making of ‘arbitrary changes’; others defended Robertson, who apparently did not comment.  Imitation (if that’s what it was; none was acknowledged in the book) would be the sincerest form of flattery.

To end, here’s a Tranströmer quote that was reproduced in one of the Guardian’s pieces over the last week.  A manifesto in two sentences. 

The language marches in step with the executioners. 
Therefore we must get a new language. 

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